Grey Headed Flying Foxes
Grey Headed Flying Foxes
All photos by photographer and (awesome) bat carer Sarah Thorpe
You may perceive them as blind, blood-sucking, loud, smelly, flying rodents that make nests in peoples’ hair… But these adorable little creatures couldn’t be more different from that description.
Grey-headed flying foxes are the largest bats in Australia, with a wingspan of up to 1.5 metres!
They weigh between 600g and 1kg (about the weight of a pineapple). Their fancy, scientific name is Pteropus poliocephalus (if you want to impress your friends with your esteemed vocabulary).
Other members of the Pteropus family include the little red flying fox, the spectacled flying fox and the black flying fox.
Grey-headed flying foxes are the only Pteropus to have fur that reaches all the way down to their ankles, whereas other species only have fur that reaches their knees. They are also the only Australian flying fox with a reddish brown circle (or collar) of fur around their necks. Their heads are light grey and their bodies are a darker greyish black. They are estimated to live between 12 and 15 years in the wild, but in captivity they have lived as long as 25 years.
Where are they found?
Well, you’ll be happy to hear that you can find these precious creatures all over Sydney, all year round. There are bats everywhere! The grey-headed flying foxes are furrier, so they cope better in the cooler climates, from Coffs Harbour to the South Coast. Black flying foxes range from Sydney all the way up to the warmest parts of Queensland. Spectacled flying foxes cope alright in the heat because their fur is quite short, so they are mainly located in Northern Queensland (Townsville to Cairns to Thursday Island)
Little red flying foxes migrate in huge groups and can be found all over the place, and as far West as Wagga Wagga. Though they may not be found all year round in these other places, and we’re not really sure why. It may be due to the need to migrate and find food or it may just be a seasonal thing.
They are native to Australia and definitely aren’t pests. In fact, they are a protected species and should not be intentionally harmed by any human, as this is against the law.
What is their habitat?
Grey-headed flying foxes roost together in large colonies in trees, as they are very social animals.
These trees seem to be very randomly picked, they can be in a backyard, next to a busy road, in melaleuca swamps, rainforests or in banksia woodlands. Most roosting sites are close to water sources such as lakes, rivers, or the beach.
During the day, they all sleep in the trees close together, all wrapped in their own black wings like upside-down ninjas. At night, the adults leave to find food and stretch their wings. They usually travel around 50km to feeding sites, but the longest ever recorded migration in one night was 350km! Babies that haven’t yet developed fur cling to their mother’s underside as she flies around, but older babies (about 4-5 weeks old) with all their fur are left in maternal camps to be nursed until - after about 12 weeks - they become independent.
What do they eat?
Flying foxes are frugivores and nectarvores, meaning that they feed on fruit, pollen and nectar from flowers. While they mostly eat from native plants, they occasionally eat from introduced species as well. Their main food sources are from Eucalyptus, Melaleuca and Banksia flowers, but they eat from around 187 different plant species. Their favourite fruits are from lilli-pillies and figs.
Occasionally, the foxes eat from cultivated fruits if they can’t find other food due to habitat loss. If bats are eating from your garden, the best way to protect your fruit is to use wildlife-safe netting: www.wildlifefriendlyfencing.com and they deliver straight to your house too!
This wildlife-friendly netting has hole-spacing no wider than 4-5mm, so the bats don’t get their claws stuck in the gaps, which could lead to starvation or strangulation.
What do they do for the environment?
Bats play a critical role in pollination. When feeding, pollen gets stuck to their fur and as they move around, the pollen brushes off onto other flowers, helping them to grow more flowers. Bats also spread plant seeds throughout forests, helping to regrow damaged environments. They have a remarkably quick digestion rate of 20 minutes, so when pollen and seeds are ingested, they are quickly spread throughout the forest.
Their role in pollination is even more important as that of birds and insects as they feed on different plants and support different plant species. Bats have the ability to migrate over vast expanses of land, and without them, the forests WILL die as the birds and insects just can’t cover enough area of the huge amounts of vegetation here in Australia.
Bats are also a key food source for animals such as pythons, goannas, birds of prey (like sea eagles) and, in other areas, crocodiles.
What threats do they face?
Sadly, bats face many issues. Grey-headed flying foxes are listed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. They suffer the effects of habitat loss and, as such, are often harassed or shot by farmers when they are forced to resort to eating from orchards and cultivated foods. There are estimations that over 100,000 are illegally shot every year.
Unfortunately, some farmers are given legal permission to shoot flying foxes as well, but the shooting isn’t regulated. They are legally allowed to shoot 50 bats per night, but this limit is often exceeded. The bats that do get shot often don’t die immediately and they suffer horrendous wounds and die slowly on the ground.
They are dispersed from their homes using loud noises such as banging, loud machinery, gas guns, water cannons and stock whips just because they are described as loud and smelly, which I find to be somewhat hypocritical. Babies (pups) can also be left at the site in the panic to get away and will die alone, orphaned.
They are threatened by heatwaves caused by Climate Change, as flying foxes find it very difficult to cope in warmer temperatures and can literally fall dead to the ground from heat-stress.
Since 1994, over 24,500 grey-headed flying foxes have died from extreme heat events alone.
Bats are also victims of electrocution between powerlines, which can kill both mothers and their babies clinging to them. Often the pups can survive, though, but are left badly burnt and dangle from their mother’s carcass without food or shelter. It’s important to call your local Wildlife Rescue organisation if you see a dead bat on powerlines.
Bats also face competition for food and habitat from other species such as nectar-eating birds like lorikeets.
Many bats are perceived as pests or rodents due to the fact that some bats contract viruses such as Australian Bat Lyssa Virus. The virus is highly contagious through blood and saliva and any bats who catch it die quickly. Even so, less than 1% of the bats actually get the the virus at any one time and it’s pretty obvious when they have it, due to their sluggish behaviour and other prominent symptoms. The virus can be vaccinated against and is completely preventable.
What can I do to help the bats?
There is no doubt that this species is in need of help. You can start by not supporting any bat dispersals which cause stress and death to the bats. If you have a camp of bats near you and you have a weird paranoia of getting sick from Lyssa Virus, you could consider get vaccinated. If they’re too loud and you can’t sleep at night, you could install double-pane windows and use earplugs when you sleep. If you think they smell, you could consider getting air-freshener in your house and plant lots of sweet-smelling plants in your garden.
You can donate to charities that help bats, such as Sydney Wildlife, Wires and batconservation.org or better yet, join them and help rescue and rehabilitate the injured, orphaned or sick flying foxes.
Bats are badly affected by Climate Change and you can help by not contributing to this global crisis. Don’t litter, save energy and be generally as eco-friendly as possible.
Use wildlife-friendly fruit-tree netting so animals don’t get tangled in it.
Don’t forget to encourage your friends to be aware of the problems that bats face.
• Flying Foxes do not make nests out of peoples’ hair. They don’t even make nests!
• They don’t suck blood. The only bat species that sucks blood is the Vampire Bat, and they don’t drink human blood, nor do they live in Australia.
• Flying Foxes aren’t blind. In fact, they have ten-times better eyesights than humans!
• Bats are not pests. They are a vulnerable species protected by the law and are native to Australia.
• Bats don’t shriek and wail to be scary, they chat to be sociable, and their noise levels are no different to that of a room filled with people.
All in all, it can be safely said that flying foxes are some of the cutest and most valuable crittersthat Australia has to offer and certainly should not be disregarded. Join the BATtalion of flying foxlovers and keep an eye out for our fauna!
by Kayleigh Greig
Pteropus poliocephalus (Grey-headed Flying-fox)www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon
Grey-headed flying fox: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey-headed_flying_fox
No me, no tree | Tim Pearson | TEDxCanberra
Tim Pearson dedicates his time to researching one of Australia's great unsung ecological heroes - the Flying Fox. In this touching and illuminating talk, Tim argues that we should give them superstar status, and care more about these creatures and the vital work they do. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnOhS5jVBFk